The Cotton Club

July 27, 2012

A few years ago, Robert Evans, the producer of films such as The Godfather and Chinatown, needed a script rewrite for a project about new York’s famous Cotton Club, a place where white audiences paid top dollar to see black entertainment during the height of the Jazz Age.

Evans had worked with larger-than-life director Francis Coppola on The Godfather, and he called Coppola to get some suggestions for a good script doctor. Coppola, ever alert (and coming off a string of commercial disasters), quickly suggested himself. Thus commenced a series of events that probably made Evans wish he’d never heard of Coppola or the Cotton Club.

Before long, Coppola had thrown out the original screenplay (the film’s “story” credit goes to Mario Puzo) and written a completely new script with Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy. Then Coppola assumed the mantle of director, and the production of the film itself was beset by rising costs and constant script rewrites.

And somewhere in the midst of this Robert Evans went bye-bye. The lawsuits are now flying, but it’s hard to imagine they will have any effect on what is already an incredibly expensive movie (something between $40 and $50 million, at last count).

Coppola seems to be attracted by this kind of guerrilla moviemaking, but whether or not it agrees with him is another matter. The films he produced while he played at being the mogul of his own hectic studio were almost wholly uninvolving.

With The Cotton Club, he’s gotten himself interesting again. This film, which whips up a blend of gangsterism and musical comedy, clips along at a confident pace and has enough flavorful characters to fill a speakeasy.

Richard Gere plays a cornet player (and Gere plays his own horn solos, by golly) whose trajectory through the Jazz Age—in the film, from the late ’20s through the early ’30s—places him in close contact with such figures as gangster Dutch Schultz (rivetingly played by unctuous James Remar), the Dutchman’s moll (Diane Lane), and the men who run the Cotton Club (Bob The Long Goodbye Hoskins and Fred “The Munsters” Gwynne, who make a great comedy team).

Gere’s brother (Nicolas Cage, Coppola’s cousin) is a hothead swept into the violent world around the Cotton Club, with bloody results. This story of the brothers is paralleled by a pair of dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) who work their way up through the Cotton Club to different levels of stardom.

The film is obviously chock-full; unfortunately, as enjoyable as much of this is, Coppola has a tendency to rush past the building blocks of characterization. He has atmosphere (kudos to designer Richard Sylbert) and rat-a-tat action down pat, but once the smoke clears, I was left with the nagging feeling that the sound and fury didn’t amount to too much.

The scope of the film calls for the three-hour Godfather sprawl, and Cotton Club clocks in at barely over two. Characters meet, split, and kiss and make up with not much validation for their behavior. Coppola asks you to take a lot for granted.

I wish the extra hour might have had more song-and-dance in it, too; although the film is full of terrific music, few numbers are presented in their entirety (Coppola enjoys cutting routines in pieces rather than letting them develop on their own). Still, Lonette McKee’s “Ill Wind” is a stand-out, and the brothers Hines tread the boards with grace.

Coppola likes to describe himself as a ringmaster/magician of chaos. He may not quite prove that the hand is quicker than the eye in The Cotton Club, but at least he keeps all three rings of the circus busy at once.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1984

As anybody who’s ever seen this movie knows, you can forget about Gere and Lane: Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne are where the action is.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

January 20, 2012

Whatever else one might say about it, Who Framed Roger Rabbit unquestionably represents one of the most remarkable technical achievements to come out of Hollywood in the last decade. This movie is an ambitious blend of live-action and animation, brought together in a seamless, inventive, and sometimes exhilarating combination.

It’s the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis, the director of Back to the Future and Romancing the Stone. Having accrued some clout with those consecutive hits, Zemeckis was able to undertake this expensive production (the budget, rumored to be in the $50 million range, was bankrolled by Touchstone pictures—Disney, that is—and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin).

Roger Rabbit was so expensive because of the high cost of animation and the elaboratness of Zemeckis’s design. This movie takes the cartoon/live-action interplay of something like Disney’s Song of the South and whips it up into a silly symphony.

In the late-’40s world of the film, flesh-and-blood people share space with “toons,” the animated character stars of the movies. One toon, Roger Rabbit (voice by Charles Fleischer) is framed for a murder, and he must go to a hard-boiled private eye (Bob Hoskins) to help clear his name. Prominent in the investigation is a sinister judge (Christopher Lloyd) who wants to rid the world of toons by dipping them in a nasty green acid.

The plot is an excuse for the spectacular visual effects, some movie in-jokes, and a gallery of animated characters. There are cameos by most of the great cartoon figures, including Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Dumbo, Tweety Bird, and Betty Boop.

Aside from the excitable and elastic Roger Rabbit, the most arresting newcomer is Roger’s wife, Jessica, a sultry, vixenish bombshell who purrs, “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.” (Her voice, uncredited, is unmistakably that of Kathleen Turner at her most provocative.)

Zemeckis doesn’t let anything sit still for a single minute. His camera is continually swooping and panning, and he’s constantly staging tussles and clinches between his real and unreal characters, all of which must’ve added to the astonishing difficulty of painstakingly drawing in the animation. (Hoskins and company, needless to say, made their live-action movie first, which means that the actors were mugging and exchanging dialogue with thin air.)

The affectionate in-jokes poke fun at cartoon conventions such as the omnipresence of falling safes and flattening steamrollers. One of the funniest moments comes during a piano duet—no, make that duel—between Donald Duck and Daffy Duck. After a dose of Donald’s bellicose quacking, Daffy turns to the crowd and asks a question that has been on the minds of cartoon lovers for years: “Does anybody understand what this duck is saying?”

Zemeckis enjoys rubbing our faces in the amazing effects. Which is typical of him; I’ve always found his movies rather witless, even when they were enjoyable. If it were an ordinary movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit would be none too interesting. But then, as it demonstrates at almost every moment during its running time, this is no ordinary movie.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

The absence of the question mark in the title was an early example of puctuaphobia that would creep into films. I never loved WFRR, but have grown to like Zemeckis more since, especially Cast Away and Beowulf.